WEEKLY CAR DIARY – A GRAND DAY OUT: THE MOON, CHARLESTOWN & EDEN PROJECT

‘Ey up. Not so much work this week, Gromit but eeh, what a Grand Day Out on Friday:-

Monday: Audi A1 Sport 1.4TFSI, Syston, Leicestershire to Newport Pagnell, Buckinghamshire; Bentley Continental GT V8S (2015), Newport Pagnell to Syston. Audi A1 Sport 1.4TFSI, Syston to Nottingham and back.

Thursday: Volkswagen Tiguan SE Nav 2.0TDI 4Motion DSG (auto), Kettering, Northamptonshire to Leicester.

Friday: Volkswagen Tiguan SE Nav 2.0TDI 4Motion DSG (auto), Leicester to St. Austell, Cornwall.

By gum, it were a long journey so I were up before crows, stumbling round in t’dark – almost put Wrong Trousers on, I did. Close Shave that was. Would have looked reet stupid in t’wife’s kecks. I went t’moon again, Gromit. In case yer’d forgotten lad, it’s just north of St. Austell in Cornwallshire. Have a gander on’t Google maps, t’stattylite view and yer’ll see it. All white it is, a reet desolate landscape. Actually, nay – it’s not really t’moon but it’s still made of cheese. Thems is Cornish Yarg quarries just like Wensleydale quarries back oop north. And those reet bright green pools thee can see on stattylite picture, thems is hot Manchester caviar springs … or mushy peas to thee, lad. It’s a good job I had decent car for that long trek, Gromit. Two hundred eighty mile on t’bumpy old motorbike and sidecar and me old eyeballs would’ve been rattling in their sockets. And….”

Wallace & Gromit
It’s the wrong transport, Gromit! Try a Volkswagen Tiguan
No, that’s enough. It’s very difficult writing in Wallace’s Wigan accent (oh, so that’s what it was supposed to be!). It was a Grand Day Out though and I breezed down to St. Austell in the Volkswagen Tiguan, leaving home at 4.30am and arriving at 10am. A couple of planned stops and no traffic jams – all quite effortless, due in no small part to the Tiguan. This was a four wheel drive version; notably thirstier then the two wheel drive examples I have driven but equally as refined on the motorway. In St. Austell, there was a quick car wash, customer handover, walk to the station (welcome exercise in the sunshine) and … pasty! Well I had to get at least one of my Cornish Five-A-Day, didn’t I?!  The first part of the train journey back to Leicester was interesting. Across tranquil, muddy creeks at low tide, alongside rivers and the sea. For a time, after we had passed through Teignmouth, it seemed as if the train was running along the beach, the sea was that close. This is the stretch of track that often features in the news in extreme weather and it was actually washed away during a storm in 2014. It added a bit of spice to my journey knowing that Storm Brian was approaching. But then again, how can a storm called Brian be anything to be feared??

But what about the Cornish Yarg quarries? Well, of course, it’s not cheese, it’s china clay (duh, cheese comes from the moon not earthbound quarries). The last few miles of the route to St. Austell took me down the A391 between the Cornish Yarg china clay pits which are eerily moon-like (although you don’t get a good view from the road).

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A lunar china clay pit (on a grey day) near St. Austell, Cornwall
Europe was about ten thousand years behind China when it came to fine porcelain. But when Europe started catching up in the 18th and 19th centuries, it turned out that St. Austell had the biggest china clay deposits in the world. Boom time! The stuff was exported all around the world and to facilitate this, a chappy called Charles something or other built a harbour just down the road from St. Austell’s clay pits (by the sea actually, smart bloke). I’m guessing he didn’t do it all on his own although it did take ten years to finish (1791 to 1801). Rather modestly, he called his creation Charlestown (and why not, if he built it?). What’s more, there is a very strong likelihood that you have seen Charlestown even if you have never been to Cornwall. It has remained largely unchanged since the early 19th century and has been a popular location for film and TV over the years. Charlestown’s credits include The Eagle Has Landed, Mansfield Park, The Onedin Line, The Three Musketeers, the recent Tom Hardy drama, Taboo and, inevitably, …. Poldark.

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Charlestown
Charlestown Poldark set
The BBC at work creating a set for Poldark in Charlestown
Charlestown is privately owned but you can still visit this wonderfully preserved bit of history. For just a modest charge (£5), you can walk in Michael Caine’s and Aidan Turner’s footsteps and enjoy all the olde worlde charm. A further charge gets you into the Shipwreck and Heritage Centre. It’s a very long time since I have been but it gets excellent reviews on TripAdvisor.

The china clay pits are still being worked today but far fewer people are employed there compared to their heyday. One of the disused pits has been put to good use though – as the dramatic location for the spectacular Eden Project. Definitely, absolutely worth a visit if you have never been to this global garden housed in “biomes”, encapsulating different climates and flora from around the world, including a tropical rain forest. Go for a walk in the rain forest canopy or fly over the biomes on the UK’s longest and fastest zip wire. We have been two or three times over the years. Had a great Thai green curry there on one occasion (but didn’t go on the zip wire which was probably a good thing).

Panoramic view of the geodesic dome structures of Eden Project
The amazing Eden Project and its biomes  Not to be outdone by Charlestown, the Eden Project had a role in the James Bond film, Die Another Day.
Colin

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LITTLE ‘UNS – A1 AUDI A1 & BLADE RUNNING PEUGEOT

Enough supercar nonsense, what about normal cars for people not called Gates, Crassus or Lannister? Last week, when working for the Leicester Bentley dealer, I got to run around in a couple of Audi A1s and a Peugeot 2008. These were cars used for getting to Mr Gates’s, Consul Crassus’s or the Lord of Casterly Rock’s shack when collecting bigger, faster and vastly more expensive cars for service.
I loved the little Audis! They were 1.4 turbo, petrol powered roller skates with more than enough oomph (125hp) for most. Down country roads, they were as nimble as a nimble thing is when a nimble thing changes direction nimbly. The oily bits were pleasantly hushed with the engine ticking over at about 2250 rpm when cruising at 70mph in sixth. Very relaxed, and a comfortable ride too. Yes, inevitably there was some road noise but it was better than other cars of this size. Absolutely fine for a long stint on the motorway. By comparison, the engine in the five speed Peugeot 2008 was buzzing away at closer to 3750rpm at 70 mph and road noise was intrusive (sorry, got a bit anoraky with the numbers there).
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What I call an Audi A1 Sport 1.4TFSI. Such fun.
Inside, like most Audis, the A1 was predictably smart with nothing showy. Unless you class round air vents as unnecessarily extrovert in which case you probably live in a monastery and sit on a spike to eat your daily ration of water and dry bread.  The air vents look good and suit the slightly sporty character of the A1. If you are thinking of downsizing, this supermini with a premium badge (and premium feel to go with it) may be the way to go – as long as you don’t have four tall people or a lot of cargo to carry. Rear legroom and boot space are not the A1’s strongpoints. Economy is a plus point though. On the journeys I did, which included a lot of motorway driving at 70mph, the A1s eked out 58 to 61 miles for every gallon. So, a good alternative to a diesel.
Now, the Peugeot 2008. Let’s not mince words, it was horrible. An ergonomic disaster. The gear lever (with which you effect a rather clunky shift) had to be pushed so far forward that 1st, 3rd and 5th were almost out of reach. Conversely, the stupid novelty handbrake – a stubby block that you gripped with your knuckles facing forwards – was too far back. Unlike most other cars, you peer at the Peugeot’s instruments over the top of the steering wheel rather than through it. Only you can’t peer at all of the instrument panel because the steering wheel blocks out the bottom bit. Then there is the wearisome clutch; the biting point is far too high which makes smooth, silky driving in the 2008 a tiring affair because you have to concentrate hard on coordinating everything. And it wasn’t just me! One of the full-time drivers at the Bentley dealer made exactly the same comment about the biting point before I had mentioned it. He also said that no one likes the 2008 at all. Sorry, I really don’t set out to find fault with a car, I want to give them all the benefit of the doubt but there is still one more moan – the steering is too light. It was too easy to haul the tiller over a bit too much so I sometimes found myself having to correct slightly mid-corner. That might sound like I was driving the Peugeot like a racing car but I wasn’t. The Peugeot drives you round the bend with ease rather then vice versa.
So, were there any good points about the Peugeot? Well, it would be a more practical alternative to a conventional supermini (the 2008 is a sort of 208 on stilts and with more air in). The performance from the 1.2 turbo petrol engine with a miserly 82hp is better then you might expect (more powerful versions of the 1.2 motor are available). The driver’s seat is soft but supportive (a personal gripe of mine, many car seats are too firm). And the best bit – the Peugeot wasn’t mine so I could give it back when finished with. Hardly the drive of your life. Putting up coving is more fun than driving this car.
But fear not Peugeot fans. I predict that Peugeot will be making exciting vehicles again – in about thirty years time. In 2049 to be exact when the transport of choice for the self-respecting Blade Runner will be a Peugeot. In Los Angeles. Of all places. A sort of cross between a Morgan three wheeler and (coincidentally) a Lamborghini Aventador. The Morgan three wheel layout is enhanced by a roof, Lamborghini-like scissor doors and a whopping exhaust mimicking the shape of the Aventador’s meaty tailpipe. And it flies!
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Peugeot 2049 style. Wonder what the clutch is like in this model?
A couple of days ago, we went to see Blade Runner 2049, the long-awaited sequel to the best film ever to feature origami. A sequel to such a mega landmark film has to be good, doesn’t it? Especially after so many years. So much expectation to live up to and …. we weren’t disappointed. We were enthralled, it was great. The same slow-burning pace and atmosphere, a thundering Vangelis-like electronic soundtrack, a dark dripping megalithic city supplemented by surreal, dream-like, yellow tinged wastelands. Plus some unsubtle shots of Peugeot logos on high-rise buildings and on Special K’s (or whatever our hero is called) flying car which, incidentally, had a joystick not a steering wheel so the instruments could be viewed in their full glory.
Colin

WEEKLY CAR DIARY – COVING vs LAMBORGHINI AVENTADOR

Disaster! Wednesday’s driving job was cancelled late Tuesday afternoon which meant I had to spend TWO days decorating (I had already reserved Thursday as a day to reluctantly face up to my adult, home-owning responsibilities). We’re only re-decorating the hall which is the size of a matchbox so the good news is that it will only take us about three weeks (we are not the world’s quickest). For some reason, we thought it would be a good idea to put coving up. How hard could it be to cove the inside of a matchbox? With all the predictability of an episode of Doc Martin, of course it turned out to be a lot harder than we imagined. Our house was built before right angles had been invented – intrepid inventors, Aubrey and Wilma Right only adding a ninetieth degree to a protractor for the first time in 1927, thus giving humankind the Right Angle a year after our house was constructed. And, after offering up the coving to the walls, it seems straight lines were pretty rare in those days too. So strips of elegant coving were tacked to the walls with more pins than you would find in a tailor’s dummy, since glue alone would not allow the coving to make contact with the wall at more than two points. In the corners, each strip of coving waved to its distance neighbour, as if across the Bering Strait until finally united by that interior pack ice, Polyfilla. A tip for inexperienced coving putter uppers: after you have finished re-decorating, buy a luridly coloured carpet or rug for your newly smart and tasteful room thus drawing people’s eyes downwards rather than up. What a palaver decorating is.  Believe me, having to get up at 5.30am for a 6 o’clock pick-up on Friday, getting taken in the dark to a desolate airfield in Warwickshire to then drive a van to Nottingham was sheer bliss (truly, I genuinely enjoyed it). And what about Tuesday, that was a bumper day:-

Monday: Audi A1 Sport 1.4TFSI (125hp), Syston, Leicestershire to Stourbridge, Worcestershire. Bentley Mulsanne Speed (2015), Stourbridge to Syston. Peugeot 2008 Active 1.2T Puretech (82hp), Syston to Derby and back

Tuesday: Peugeot 2008 Active 1.2T Puretech (82hp), Syston to Northampton. Bentley Bentayga W12, Northampton to Syston. Bentley Continental GT Speed W12 (2009), 40 mile test run & Lamborghini Aventador LP700-4 (2014), 50 mile test run to there and back. Bentley Continental GT V8S (2016), Syston to Newark. Audi A1 Sport 1.4TFSI (125hp), Newark to Syston.

Friday: Ford Transit Connect, Stratford-Upon-Avon to Nottingham.

So, Tuesday. I was working for the service department at the Leicester Bentley/ Lamborghini dealer. While grabbing a quick sandwich and cup of tea wondering what was up next, a set of keys was dangled in front of me. “Can you take this Aventador up to Gunthorpe and back.” Why? Who cared! Mine not to reason why, mine but to do and drive.

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The Aventador outside the Batcave. At night, it goes inside and hangs upside down.

Outside I went, where the outrageous piece of automotive excess sat brooding. Another 700hp starship, this time with a 6.5 litre V12. In almost matt black, there was more than a touch of the Batmobile about it. Open the scissor door and clamber in. Glance round the cockpit to locate all the important bits and assess the potential for coving (fortunately, none). Inside, there was a distinct similarity to the Aventador’s little brother, the Huracan which I had driven before. However, the Aventador did have conventional stalks for the indicators and wipers instead of the Huracan’s sliding switches on the steering wheel. Also, the Aventador’s seat was a little less snug in the lateral department for my lithe, athletic rake-like form but this is a car for proper grown-ups. Sliding a steak and kidney pie down one side and a doughnut down the other would have sorted things but may have been a little bit Lionel*. Like the Huracan, there was no gear selector with the usual choice of P-R-N-D, instead just two buttons “R” and “M” and an electronic parking brake. There was also the same style of nuclear button hidden under a red safety cover.

Almost ready then – just adjust the mirrors and write my will. Adjusting the mirrors was of dubious value because the wing mirrors couldn’t see much past the Batmobile’s high and wide hips (all muscle – no doughnuts or pies) and the rear view mirror peered through a very shallow rear window at a large wing. Now, flip red safety cover up, HIT THE NUCLEAR BUTTON AND ….. nothing. Another difference between the Aventador and Huracan is the position of the pedals. The Aventador’s are so far over to the left that driving pleasures could be shared your passenger. How jolly considerate of the Lamborghini designers. Anyway, making a mental note to keep my right foot well over to the left when braking to prevent embarrassment (and early reading of the will), I tried again – this time with foot on brake. All hell broke loose. I’d swear that the engine, situated immediately behind my ears, actually gave its ear-splitting bark not once but twice.

So, flip the right flappy paddle into first, gently squeeze the loud pedal and off I bumbled out of the dealership. With the all-black interior and slitty windows, I felt I was driving the world’s fastest (and lowest) letterbox. And feeling every single bump and pimple on the road’s surface (and some that probably weren’t there at all), it was apparently a letterbox with octagonal wheels and powered by screaming harpies. I chugged a few hundred yards round the corner to the local petrol station letting the gearbox do its own thing while I got used to the car. Then I had to climb out at the pumps trying to look as casual as possible but feeling very self-conscious. Why was everyone staring? Check flies and carry on. Anyway, I splashed in twenty quids worth of unleaded as instructed and went to collect my Nectar points. Yes, I was getting paid for driving a Lamborghini Aventador and I got Nectar points. Does life get any better?

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All this and Nectar points too! By the way, look at the exhaust. It’s bigger than Brian Blessed’s mouth.

Now, the real business began. After starting the engine (foot on correct pedal), I hit the “M” (manual) button and played tunes on the flappy paddles all by myself. My route for the fifty mile run wasn’t very inspiring – negotiate about three roundabouts, then straight up the A46 dual carriageway into Nottinghamshire …. and back again. So, in the established Cars with a Side of Couscous tradition, I can tell you what it is like to drive in straight lines (and only at roughly legal speeds). But I’m not complaining! Accelerating away from a set of traffic lights, seventy was reached in what seemed like the blink of an eye and other cars were left far behind (at least I think they were, but the rearward view was limited). By magic, those octagonal wheels became more or less round although the suspension still provided less give than Scrooge. And the road noise was colossal, particularly on a long stretch of concreted A46 when I thought Brian Blessed must be sitting next to me – yodelling (actor and force of nature Brian Blessed is the loudest thing on the planet; he once demolished a disused cooling tower with a single guffaw). When Mr Blessed stopped yodelling, I was able to hear the engine again, continuing its metallic scream – much higher-pitched than the deep-throated Bentley Supersports. To be honest, I didn’t find the engine’s song as characterful as the Supersports or an Aston Martin V12. The exception was on the overrun; lifting off the throttle gave rise to a distinctive, sinister rattle issued by the 12 headed snake from Hades behind my head.

Then, amazingly, I realised I could make out something in the rear view mirror. A small van that I had passed way back, had suddenly appeared – glued to my tail. I was doing a generous 70mph (but no more than 75mph, officer) so I moved over to let the van past. It duly dawdled past me, promptly pulled in a little way ahead and gradually slowed down. Grateful for an excuse to enjoy the Aventador’s ferocious acceleration, I pulled out and overtook the van and carried on my way. Guess wot? Yes, the same thing happened again … and again. The third time I passed the van, the driver’s window came down and a hand appeared holding a camera pointing in my direction. A paparazzo! No doubt he mistook me for Batman actor, Ben Affleck. There is a similarity – Ben and I have the same number of heads, for a start. And, we weren’t that far from Gotham (the Nottinghamshire version) or even Wollaton Hall which doubles as Wayne Manor in the Batman movies. Or maybe, he was taking a photo of the car?

Finally, the van turned off and I carried on my way up the A46, the more slow moving vehicles pulling out ahead of me the better because I then had an excuse to drop a couple of gears and restore cruising speed as quickly as possible once they moved out of the way. Then, after about 25 miles, I turned around and did much the same thing all the way back to the Batcave. Work beats putting up coving any day.

Colin

* Messy.

HALF-WAY HOLLANDAISE SAUCE. SHERRY REQUIRED

I have neglected the cooking side of my blog in recent weeks partly because there has been so much other stuff to write about and partly because there are so many brilliant cooking blogs out there that put my feeble efforts (and dodgy smartphone photos) to shame. However, a little adventure in the kitchen at the weekend has prompted this post. I have always loved the eggy, buttery, unctuous confection that is hollandaise sauce and always thought I should have a go at making it myself. I have been put off in the past because I had heard it is quite tricky and that things may “split” if the nascent sauce gets too cold … or too hot. No room for error then. But, putting all my fears aside, the time felt right at the weekend to give it a go. After all, both kids are back at university, so that was two less people to poison. As it happened, the results were fine and in an unexpected way – a way that will be music to the ears of lazy or less than gifted cooks (and possibly weight watchers too).
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Here’s one I got away with – half-way hollandaise sauce. Looks OK doesn’t it? Light and even a little frothy. With grilled salmon, carrot and potato rösti and steamed veg.
I’m one for short cuts and not bothering with recipes but this would have to be an exception. So, I trawled through a few recipes and found that there is a surprising amount of variation. I immediately discarded recipes that required butter to be melted and separated, runny stuff from solids (too much of a faff) and those that required use of a double saucepan and/or food processor. I know food processors are supposed to be labour saving devices but it’s too much effort to dig out our little-used machine from its dark, cobweb-festooned cupboard, wash all the bits, use it to make a few tablespoonfuls of sauce, wash it…..

In the end, here’s what I did and what I used for two servings:-
One large glass of chilled sherry*. This goes into you not the sauce. If you’re going to make Dutch sauce, you need a bit of Dutch courage.
Two egg yolks. If the prospect of separating egg yolk from egg white sounds more frightening than separating butter, don’t panic and read on.
About 1oz/25 g of chilled butter (as chilled as you will be after the sherry)
One tablespoon fresh lemon juice. You can try the bottled variety if you like but don’t blame me if your spouse leaves you and the house falls down.
That’s all! Oh, a smidgelet of salt and pepper if you wish. It doesn’t sound like much butter does it? The recipe called for more but that’s where my hollandaise adventure took an unexpected turn.
Expert cooks can skip this paragraph (and in fact this whole, heretical post) but for novice egg workers ……. To extract an egg yolk from a complete egg, crack the egg on the edge of a bowl but just enough so that you can then pull the two halves of the shell apart with your thumbs. Hang on, not yet. First make sure that the egg is above the bowl and that the egg is upright. Now pull the shell apart. The yolk should will remain in the bottom half of the shell while most of the white cascades with a slop into the bowl. Now tip the yolk from one half of the shell to the other a few times to get rid of the rest of the egg white. There may be a small amount of white that refuses to part with the yolk but that doesn’t matter – the cooking gods and the hollandaise will turn a blind eye. If you’re a first timer, it may be best to attempt this before touching the sherry. If it all goes horribly wrong, give up on the hollandaise sauce and have an omelette.
Now you can get started proper (with the sauce and the sherry). Put the eggs yolks into a small saucepan and whisk until “lemon yellow and slightly thick”. I’m already thick so I was half way there – haha. About 1 minute the recipe said. Haha again – I frantically waved my balloon whisk around for longer than that until I convinced myself I could notice a change. I must be a feeble whisker (that sounds odd) but ultimately everything was fine. Then whisk in the lemon juice (NB. all this is happening without any heat – other than excess body heat generated by all that whisking).
Now add half the chilled butter … man (my butter was so chilled it was called Dylan**). Place over a low heat and whisk continuously while the butter is melting and until the sauce thickens and you can see the bottom of the saucepan between strokes. In reality, since I was making half the quantity compared to the recipe, I could see the bottom of the pan right from the start! So, just continue until it thickens. I also used a VERY low heat, the smallest ring on our gas hob and a metal simmer plate on top of that.
Next, remove the pan from the heat and beat in the remaining chilled butter. Now here’s the twist. The recipe told me to then whisk in, a little at a time, three more ounces (150g) of melted butter (and yes, that was the corrected quantity for just two servings). To its credit, it did not call for separated butter – that’s why I chose this particular recipe. So, I had a carefully weighed amount of diced butter waiting to be melted in the microwave but I thought hang on, the contents of the saucepan were already doing a passable impersonation of hollandaise sauce in terms of colour and consistency. A quick dip and lick of the little finger confirmed that, taste-wise, it could pass as the Dutch delight and there was a reasonable quantity to provide several elegant tablespoonfuls over a couple of grilled salmon fillets. Why waste time and an unhealthy amount of extra butter going any further? So I stopped there and behold, Colin created half-way hollandaise sauce.
I did carry on heating my creation because I had used such a gentle heat that, although the butter had melted, the sauce was not warm enough to serve. So, I left it on the simmer plate until it was a decent temperature (serious, important point because of the raw egg), whisking frequently but not continuously while I attended to frying rösti, grilling salmon, steaming vegetables and sipping sherry. Never before have so many tasks been attempted by a male of the species. Finally, you may wish to add a touch of salt and pepper – or even whisk in some melted butter if you want more of a hollandaise swamp on your plate.
It’s now four days since consumption of my hollandaise heresy. There have been no ill effects and I have recovered full use of my whisking arm (when I went swimming on Sunday morning, I only managed to go round in circles). We need a new bottle of sherry though.
Colin
* Sherry is probably a bit of an old-fashioned drink nowadays but a glass of chilled sherry before our Sunday dinner is one of our guilty pleasures. Here I broke the rules and had a glass on Saturday. We used to buy Croft Particular, a rather pricey pale Amontillado (I’m in danger of sounding knowledgeable there  – I know Amontillado is a type of sherry and not an armoured mammal native to the Americas but that’s about it). After forgetting to pick up a bottle on a trip to Sainsbury’s, we later grabbed a bottle of Aldi’s own brand cream sherry in desperation (so we thought at the time). It’s a different style of sherry but we haven’t looked back. It’s about half the price and, apparently, it has won awards.
** Readers of a certain age will understand this Magic Roundabout reference.

WEEKLY CAR DIARY – A BIG ONE, A FAST ONE & NANTWICH 1 CREWE 0

Another interesting and varied working week. I don’t know how I cope:-

Monday: Ford Transit Connect, Doncaster to Crewe; Bentley Continental GT Supersports, Syston, Leicestershire to Leicester

Tuesday: Bentley Continental GT Supersports, Leicester to Crewe, Cheshire and back

Wednesday: Volkswagen Tiguan SE Nav 2.0TDI (150hp), Nottingham to Mansfield, Nottinghamshire

Friday: Mercedes GLS 350d 4Matic AMG Line, Stafford to Hertford

So, I got to drive the same 700hp Supersports as a few weeks ago and for a good long run to Crewe and back. Talk about taking coals to Newcastle – two of us took a couple of Bentleys to the Bentley factory for some sort of customer driving event despite the fact there are hundreds of the things swilling around up there.

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The Bentley factory, probably the most interesting thing in Crewe.

Between dropping the Bentleys off and picking them up again, we had seven hours to kill. What do you do in Crewe for seven hours?? From a quick peep in-depth research on the interweb, the answer is you don’t. There appeared to be nothing of interest whatsoever. When the local shopping centre, a kiddies play centre and Crewe Alexandra football stadium appear in the top ten things to do, you know it wouldn’t make for an interesting day out.  Crewe is famous as a railway town and there is a heritage railway museum …. but it closed a couple of days previously for the winter. Also, by coincidence, a group of us delivered some vans to Crewe the day before; from a drive through the town, it didn’t look inspiring. My extensive research suggested that the old market town of Nantwich would be a better bet, just a fifteen minute bus ride from the Bentley factory.

So, off we boldly went to seek out new sights and tea rooms in this old Cheshire town which dates back to Roman times, when local Roman garrisons used salt from Nantwich to sprinkle on their fish and chips (I’m guessing here but what else would they have used salt for??). And we weren’t disappointed. No Sistine Chapel, Taj Mahal or Hanging Gardens but a pleasant place to while away a few hours. In fact, it was a bit like Hereford which featured in my last post but on a smaller scale and without a famous drawing of the world. Like Hereford, the town is situated on a river (the Weaver) and it comprises mostly old, attractive buildings. The large church (which could have been a cathedral had it drunk a tad more milk when it was growing up) is also built in a pinkish stone just like Hereford Cathedral. A particular feature of Nantwich is the number of Elizabethan black and white, half-timbered buildings dotted around the town. There is also a very charming, mostly residential street called Welsh Row – the comparison with Hereford continues as Nantwich is not a million miles from the Welsh border. After a decent riverside walk, a turn around the town, church, small covered market, lunch and a visit to the small town museum (ho hum, it was free so might as well….), we jumped on the omnibus back to Crewe.

On the way back to Leicester in the Supersports, I was really adventurous and put it in “Sport”. I don’t know what came over me, must have been the Tabasco sauce in my porridge. Actually, I didn’t think that it would make that much difference but oh boy, was I wrong. The engine note changed immediately – louder and deeper, it held on to each gear for longer (and didn’t seem to want to bother with gears 7 and 8 even when settling at 70mph) and acceleration went from furious back shoving to vicious head snapping. The best bit was lifting off the throttle which prompted someone to play kettle drums very rapidly through some sort of fluttery filter, even when slowing down from the most modest of speeds. Tee hee.

So, on to Friday when I moved into a small black bungalow for the 130 mile trip from Stafford to Hertford. It was my first Mercedes GLS, a huge seven seat SUV.  Bigger than a Range Rover but not as refined or as quick and it’s thirstier compared to the similarly-engined three litre diesel Range Rover. Like the Rangie, it is soft riding and pitches and wallows along undulating country roads, possibly more so than its British competitor, but all is calm on the motorway. So, why would you buy a GLS? Well, it has more space including a reasonable amount of legroom in Row Z (you could even fit real people back there) and the amply equipped AMG Line three litre diesel costs about £5000 less than the cheapest Range Rover. If you are fortunate to have enough of the stuff, you pays your money and takes your choice (which may be an Audi Q7 if cost, space and refinement are priorities but that’s based on what I have read, not personal experience).

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Well-equipped des res bungalow, accommodates seven comfortably. Or maybe it’s a Mercedes GLS.

By the way, if you read my Hereford post right to the end, The Pretenders were absolutely brilliant when we saw them on Wednesday night!

Colin

HEREFORD – MOATS, MAPS, APPLES & CHAINS

We had never been to the very old city of Hereford before; in fact a lot of the area west of Birmingham to the Welsh border is a mystery to us. All we really knew about Herefordshire is that it is famous for apples, cider and its own breed of cattle. So, it was time to put that right last weekend. En route, we stopped at Brockhampton Estate, a National Trust property in Herefordshire just off the very scenic A44 (nice drive). What a hidden treasure this is. Not the usual, grand stately home but a remote manorial farm house surrounded by a moat and hills. Built sometime between 1380 and 1420, this half-timbered house sports a wonky gate house which was basically a 15th century status symbol since electronic gates had not been invented. We were so lucky to visit on a quiet weekday and in almost sunny weather. It is such a truly magical, rustic place that it was surely built by pixies. For a short period of time, the pixies lived at Brockhampton, bog snorkelling in the moat each morning in search of the much-prized white bog truffle (slice, pan fry in butter, add a handful of chopped, wild grungewort for a traditional accompaniment to roast pop weasel on pixie feast days).  In the fields around Brockhampton, the pixies could be seen bareback badger racing (brock is an old English word for badger by the way) until a reckless wager with a human saw the estate pass to one John Dumbleton in settlement of a crushing gambling debt (actually, it may have been Mr Dumbleton who built Brockhampton). Pixies have lived underground ever since. Eventually, the estate passed into National Trust ownership in 1946 (when badger racing and bog snorkelling on the estate were promptly banned).
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Brockhampton farm house complete with moat and gate house. Beautiful. Makes your quaint bone tingle.
On to Hereford; not in the Premier League of quaint historic cities like Bath and York but capable of some giant killing – as Ronnie Radford proved in the 1972 FA Cup third round replay against Newcastle United. Radford’s 30 yard wonder strike helped non-league Hereford United beat top-flight Newcastle and became one of the most famous and muddiest FA Cup goals ever. Today, Hereford’s giant-killing wonder strikes are the Mappa Mundi, the Chained Library, the 12th century cathedral and one of four originals of the 1217 Magna Carta still in existence (not the first version famously signed by the infamous King John in 1215 which was actually a bit of a failure). The picturesque River Wye adds to Hereford’s attractions. The city itself has a long and eventful history involving civil wars, fire, sieges, executions, bishops, flirtations with Welshness (during which inordinate amounts of cheese on toast were consumed) and a castle that has long since vanished, although part of the moat remains (no bog snorkelling though).
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Hereford Cathedral viewed from a Victorian suspension (foot) bridge across the River Wye.
It costs an entirely reasonable £6 to see the Mappa Mundi, Chained Library and Magna Carta which are all housed in a modern building attached to and styled on the cathedral. The Mappa Mundi is a map representing the Christian world in or around the year 1300 when the map was produced by one Richard of Haldingham and Lafford while he was still at enfants school. No, I mustn’t joke. Yes, at first glance it appears childishly simplistic but actually if you rotated it through 90 degrees, pulled and stretched it somewhat, it’s quite a good representation of Europe, Asia and Africa (the known world in 1300 unless you were a native American or kangaroo). Being a religious map, it has Jerusalem at the centre and the east at the top. Considering the majority of people in that era probably travelled no further than their local corner shop, the map shows a remarkable level of knowledge. It measures 1.59m by 1.34m (the largest medieval map known to exist) and is drawn (or painted?) on vellum – calf’s skin to you, me and the poor baby cow. It’s a wonderfully “busy” picture, covered in hundreds of place names (most recognisable in today’s world) and little graphics like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Sphinx in Egypt and the Labyrinth on Crete. We spent a good while studying the original and an English translation of the map … but we still couldn’t find Wally. You may remember the map making the headlines about thirty years ago when a man from Sotheby’s valued it at £7million. Part of Hereford Cathedral was falling down and the bishop or whoever considered selling the map to pay for the restoration. Happily, donations flooded in, the Cathedral was repaired, the map stayed in Hereford and everyone went home for tea as happy as can be.
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Where’s Wally? Hereford’s Mappa Mundi. Amazing.

After a long, interesting chat with the guide about the map and a brief peruse of the 1217 Magna Carta, it was into the Chained Library, so called because there are still dusty skeletons chained to the walls as a stark warning to users of the library. The penalty for overdue books and for not shushing when shushed at by the librarian was harsh in those days. No, hang on, that was just a nightmare I once had when I forgot to take a copy of The Railway Children back to our local library on time. In reality, the Chained Library contains rows of books chained to their early 17th century bookcases, clearly for security reasons (the need arising after Rufus Gable, a shady roofing contractor, stole several editions of What Tiler from the library in 1601). There are many ancient manuscripts and crusty old printed works, some dating back to the earliest days of printing – 1473 is the oldest printed book. Each weighty tome is tethered to a metal bar on the bookcase by a chain attached to the leading edge of its front cover.

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The Chained Library. Books go in spine first because of the chain. The framed document hanging on the end of the bookcase provides a key for locating each book.

The cathedral itself is not in the major league in terms of size but it is still impressive. Last year, a new stained glass window and memorial to the UK’s most famous (but still secretive) elite military unit  – the Special Air Service – was unveiled. The SAS is based in Herefordshire and there is an SAS cemetery in another of Hereford’s churches.

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Hereford Cathedral in a distinctive pinky stone. The building on the right is the modern annex housing the Mappa Mundi, Chained Library and Magna Carta. “Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?” Tony Hancock in Hancock’s Half Hour (Twelve Angry Men).
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The new SAS memorial in the cathedral. Above it is a striking new stained glass window, also part of the memorial.

After that dose of history and culture, we did something very unusual for us – we went on a guided tour of the city for more of the same. We normally like to explore places on our own but it was worthwhile tagging along with a guide. Hereford has loads of old buildings, churches and history and our guide had plenty of anecdotes to bring it all to life. I asked him where the statue of Ronnie Radford was and was a bit shocked to learn there isn’t one. Later in the afternoon, I was tempted by Hereford’s Cider Museum but we were quite exhausted by that time so gave it a miss. To make up for it, I had a bottle of Herefordshire cider when we got home (by coincidence, we happened to have a bottle of Henney’s Exhibition Cider ready and waiting in the fridge – excellent buy, £1.29 at Aldi!). Another coincidence we discovered over the weekend – with the exception of Chrissie Hynde, all of the original members of The Pretenders came from Hereford. We are going to see The Pretenders in Nottingham tonight. The Chained Library was the inspiration for their hit, Back on the Chain Gang. No it wasn’t.

Colin

WEEKLY CAR DIARY – VANTAGE vs VANQUISH, S-CLASS vs RANGE ROVER

Dashing this quick post off on my phone at Sheffield train station ‘cos we are going away for a long weekend. Obviously all of the best drivers must have been unavailable this week (I know one of them had to take his guide dog to the vets), so happily I was landed with this lot:

Monday: Aston Martin V8 Vantage S automatic, Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire to Nottingham

Tuesday: Mercedes S500e plug-in petrol-electric hybrid, Leicester to Hinckley, Leicestershire

Wednesday: Aston Martin Vanquish S Volante, Gaydon, Warwickshire to Williams F1, Grove, Oxfordshire

Thursday: Range Rover Vogue SE TDV6, Peterborough, Cambridgeshire to Sheffield

My working week in numbers: 4 cars, a total of 1,725 horses, 2,370 Nm of torque and list price of about £490,000 (no doubt some of the cars had extras on top of that so quite probably over the half a million mark).

My working week in words:

Aston Martin V8 Vantage S. It’s not all glamour – pouring with rain, rush hour, short trip (15 miles), about half of it in slow traffic. Still an occasion though. In fact, just starting an Aston Martin is something to be relished –  see my post about my day working at the Aston Martin dealer in Derby (which has now closed down – hopefully nothing to do with me). Sluggish gear change in either auto or manual mode just like the V12 Vantage auto (again see earlier post – I politely described it as “slightly hesitant”) but learnt it is much better driving in manual mode and lifting off the throttle with each change up, just as if driving a proper manual with a clutchy pedal thing. As hard and bumpy as the V12 version​. Probably no surprise but who cares – sounds as wonderful as the V12 and this one had brilliant interior. Ultra smart, tasteful black leather dash, bit of blue stitching for that sporty touch. Something to admire sitting in a traffic jam.

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The V8 Vantage waiting to be woken up and taken out into the rain. Small and perfectly formed. Gorgeous.
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After their morning shower. Three of us took these cars to Aston Martin Nottingham – a Rapide S and DB11 alongside the dinkier Vantage. We even managed to park them neatly.

By the way, I never did marry Philomena Wingnut after my day in Derby. We agreed that her giving me a scandalous number of loyalty points wasn’t actually much of a scandal – plus my wife wouldn’t let me.

Vanquish S Volante. Compared to the Vantage, a positively sumptuous ride (everything’s relative!!). Glorious V12 – goes without saying but I just did. Felt very grippy, nice weighty steering. Engine hushes up when cruising but significant road noise and bit of flutter from the soft top. Much better automatic gearbox – quick changes with the flappy paddles when in manual mode. Dash layout and controls virtually same as all current and recent Astons (DB11 excepted, I think but still to find out!) so no familiarisation needed. This one had all cream interior. I like cream leather seats in a car, not so keen on the whole dashboard. Not complaining though!

Disappointingly little to see at the Williams F1 headquarters where three of us delivered the Vanquish and two DB11s. I went into reception, mainly to use the facilities but also in the hope that there would be a few exhibits – like a couple of old F1 cars or Alan Jones’s lucky underpants (Australian Jones won the 1980 F1 championship in a Williams and his lucky red underwear). Instead, there was a Brompton folding bike and a futuristic, plastic electric vehicle. Might have been the reception for the on-site conference centre rather than the actual team.

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The Beast: Vanquish S Volante waiting to leave Gaydon with one of the DB11s behind.
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… and the other DB11 up ahead of the Vanquish.

Vantage versus Vanquish? If I could choose, I would love to have a longer run in the seven speed (proper) manual V12 Vantage that I drove back in May.

Mercedes S500e. Have read a few times that the S-Class is the best car in the world (may have been Mercedes saying that though). Is it? Can’t tell you because a) I haven’t driven every other car in the world and b) more specifically, I haven’t driven the new Ford Fiesta (and no, that wasn’t an attempt at humour or sarcasm). However – shock, horror – I was disappointed with the S-Class. Maybe I had read too much about it beforehand. It didn’t have a 100% silky magic carpet ride (little bit jittery in the M69) nor was I able to listen to the clock in monastic silence. Obviously, it was still very quiet and comfortable but I was expecting something supernatural. Also, it was a little bit jerky driving through town, partly the petrol engine kicking in to help the electric motor and partly the gear change. Apart from that, quality was impeccable and rear passengers would love the reclining seats and oodles of legroom in this long wheel base leviathan. It did feel a bit Percy though. Soulless (hope you read my last, very silly post).

Range Rover. A more cosseting ride in my view than the S-Class although the Range Rover does wobble and wallow a bit when going over crests and bumps. But so, so smooth going up through the gears I didn’t notice it. Also, despite being a diesel, it was commendably quiet. The S-Class was probably quieter but the Range Rover was more than quiet enough. The Range Rover does have a bit of character about it plus you and your passengers have that commanding view but things will be a little cramped for your rear guests compared to the Mercedes.

Mercedes S500e versus Range Rover Vogue SE TDV6? If I was forced to have one of these luxury barges, then I would have to choose the Range Rover, especially for munching motorway miles. Would have to put up with some wobblyness if driving down country roads – I’m sure the S-Class would make a better job of that.

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The long ….
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… and the tall. Tuesday’s Merc S-Class and Thursday’s Range Rover

Footnote: I have delivered four of the smaller Range Rover Velars (all two litre diesels) in recent weeks, all a similar distance on motorway standard roads, including one from Peterborough to Sheffield. They managed 34-36 miles per gallon which I thought was a bit poor. Driving from Peterborough to Sheffield again, cruising at the same 70mph, the three litre big daddy Range Rover did 37mpg. Interesting … or maybe not. Sorry. Anoraky.

Not quite a quick post, was it? That’s a lot of typing on a little phone. But I did finish it before the train got back to Leicester.

Colin